WASHINGTON -- Little noticed in the election this month was that the nation's third-biggest vote-getter, behind only President Bush and John F. Kerry, was Senator Barbara Boxer, a fiery California Democrat who proudly wears her liberalism on her sleeve.
In a campaign year when the GOP picked off most of its Democratic targets, Boxer sailed to a third Senate term Nov. 2 with 6.4 million votes, 200,000 more than Kerry got in the state. Ralph Nader's total for the country: 407,000 votes.
Boxer crushed former California secretary of state Bill Jones by 20 percentage points and scored a bigger share of the electorate than Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the state's senior and more popular senator, won in her last election.
This from a San Francisco Bay Area liberal who has made a habit of exasperating the GOP, whether taking on the Pentagon over a $7,600 coffeepot -- a fight she waged as a junior congresswoman two decades ago -- or leading opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
''She's certainly one of the most liberal senators in the country, and one that Republicans love to hate," said Ken DeBow, a political scientist at California State University in Sacramento. ''And they can't come close to touching her."
Boxer's success has several explanations: California's electorate leans stubbornly Democratic, even as voters nationwide hand victories to the GOP. The state Republican Party has a small pool of talent from which to draw candidates despite the success of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Boxer has honed her skills as a campaigner through two previous, much tougher Senate races.
Her huge victory is all the more noteworthy because it came in the first statewide race since Californians recalled Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, and replaced him with Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, a year ago.
Many Republicans said the recall portended a shift toward the GOP in California. Senator George Allen of Virginia, head of the Senate GOP campaign committee, predicted that Jones could beat Boxer because ''it's a whole new terrain there, a whole new ballgame with Governor Schwarzenegger."
Boxer said she was consciously trying to prove that argument wrong.
''After the recall, I knew that I was carrying on my shoulders an enormous responsibility to make the point that a Democratic candidate could win, could win resoundingly, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger's election would not mean the end of Democratic candidacies," she told reporters recently.
''That's why you saw how hard I was working. And people kept saying, 'Well you're going to win, you're going to win.' But we had to win resoundingly, we had to, I had to," she said.
Boxer made her point, and after her victory, Schwarzenegger increasingly seems to be the exception, not the rule, in California politics, according to one analyst.
''While Arnold is wildly popular, he's hardly the party standard-bearer," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University.
''People view him as not a politician."